North American newsrooms share impact of Facebook Accelerator COVID-19 grants

In a tough year for local journalism, we’ve seen hundreds of encouraging examples of publishers taking the next steps in their digital transformation even under extreme pressure.

The pandemic forced publishers to abandon their newsrooms, adopt safety measures while reporting on their communities, and made an already difficult business environment even more challenging.

Despite all this, newsrooms rose to the occasion. At a time when communities needed local news more than ever, journalists ensured that they had the information they needed to stay safe and healthy.

To help news organizations better address COVID-19-related challenges, the Facebook Journalism Project, in partnership with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association, awarded more than $18 million in grants to more than 500 news organizations across various grant initiatives. (You can see lessons for how to make the most out of a $5,000 investment here and how publishers used larger investments to make big changes in their news organizations during COVID-19 here.)

In this report, we’ll look at the $5.4 million that went to 59 North American news publishers who have participated in the Facebook Local News Accelerator program in partnership with The Lenfest Institute.

More than 50 percent of publishers used their funding to increase the number of journalists working on the COVID-19 crisis, whether by using funds to stave off reductions or by hiring and training new staff. The second largest focus was protecting and expanding their consumer revenue, with nearly half of publishers investing in marketing and subscriber engagement.

Nearly a quarter invested in new technologies to help them build toward a more sustainable future by creating new bandwidth and infrastructure for revenue generation and developing new digital-first products.

Here are some highlights that we hope will serve as inspiration for other publishers looking to continue their digital transformation during a disruptive time.

Keep journalists reporting and launch new COVID-focused products.

Many Accelerator publishers put their support toward making sure their communities stayed informed at a time when cratering advertising revenue threatened layoffs and furloughs for important reporters.McClatchy, for example, was able to retain every healthcare reporter at its 12 newspapers which participated in the program, mainly in smaller markets. “In each case, our publications were the only, or one of the few, trusted sources for this information in the local community,” it said. “This information was a key public service.” Wisconsin Watch, the Madison-based investigative nonprofit, produced 38 major stories between April and August 2020 — four times its typical pre-pandemic pace of reporting

Meanwhile, the Herald Publishing Co., which operates La Prensa, a Spanish-language outlet covering central and western Iowa, launched “Spanglish Weekly,” a bilingual weekly email newsletter to grow its audience and donor pool while sharing relevant coverage.

Vermont nonprofit VTDigger’s audience tripled last spring thanks in part to a COVID-19 live blog, a daily coronavirus email newsletter, an essential services business directory, and a knowledge base for readers interested in critical COVID-19 information.

Drive donations (sometimes on top of subscriptions) to support independent newsgathering

During this challenging time, publishers were able to grow revenue by expanding fundraising options and giving audiences more opportunities to support their work.

For publishers with existing donation options, this period was one to push harder. During its fall pledge drive, WABE, the public broadcaster in Atlanta, put paid social media advertising behind a local “premium” offer — donate $120 or more and get a locally-designed coffee mug. Some $3,000 in advertising spend generated nearly $40,000 in revenue from hundreds of new monthly donors. The perk, overall, generated more than $200,000 in donations.

Other publishers refined their offerings to better meet the moment. As its audience spiked due to COVID-19 coverage, The Salt Lake Tribune focused on growing its new Supporting Subscriber program, which is a hybrid membership approach that encourages additional donations on top of a normal subscription.

The nonprofit newspaper conducted more than 80 tests related to reader revenue, with about half focused on refining messaging, offer placement, and incentives to join.

The Salt Lake Tribune gained 1,434 Supporting Subscribers since launching the program on June 1, 2020, and 63% of subscribers chose the higher level. Its monthly retention rate for Supporting Subscribers three months in was 10% higher than that of its basic subscription.

And in an effort to get sharper at driving member contributions in the future, Colorado Public Radio/Denverite created a cross-departmental team focused on digital issues — informally called the “funnel squad” — that addresses challenges focused to audience growth, membership and more.

If you’re a newsroom looking to drive greater member contributions, check out these practical tips from Scalawag CEO Cierra Hinton.

The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by The Lenfest Institute and other non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.

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